I keep thinking about Gone With the Wind and Margaret Mitchell and race, and the plain fact is that it gets complicated. Race is a tricky subject, so hear me out while I lay all my cards on the table right now (having finished Part One)—then, of course, sing out in the comments section if you think I missed the boat (or sank it, for that matter). The O’Haras are undeniably good people—Scarlett’s parents, anyway—by the standards of their age. Gerald, as noted in the quotation above, is a “kind” master because he not only bought Dicey, but was considerate enough to buy her 12 year old daughter, Prissy, also, because he knew it would make them sad to be parted. Most masters aren’t quite as “noble”. And before you gag and say this doesn’t seem kind at all, given that, you know, he’s owning people, let’s toss in that Gerald is widely known throughout the county as a man who will lend you money when times are tight, no questions asked. His wife, Ellen, will drop whatever she’s doing, any time of the day or night, to go tend someone who is sick or dying, whether they are white or black, rich or poor. And she is a racist, like her husband. So what do we do with racism?
On the one hand, racism is such an ugly thing that I get our instinctive disgust—our feeling that anybody that openly racist is not deserving of an ounce of our pity or sympathy. It would be like saying that we shouldn’t just flatly call Ted Bundy a “murdering sociopath” because he was a really good friend to some kids he grew up with, and kind to his neighbors, and he doesn’t get enough credit for that….we couldn’t really make that argument with a straight face, could we? And yet. We are forgiving of many faults, aren’t we? We can maintain relationships with people who have committed grave breaches of ethics—people who have hurt others emotionally or even physically, people who have broken solemn promises, people who have committed crimes. We still love them because they are our friends or our family, and we recognize that life is complicated. Maybe we nudge them to change, if we can, or to accept their responsibility in the matter. But when we cannot move them (as I cannot move the O’Haras), as in the case of very elderly relatives perhaps, don’t we allow ourselves to feel whatever we feel about them without having to constantly say “keeping in mind that my grandfather is racist, I love other qualities of his”? I don’t know what my obligations are to a fictional character—are the evils of American slavery too large for me to see these characters in a positive light? Am I putting too much pressure on myself to respond to the novel in the “right” way, rather than how it actually strikes me? Would it be wrong to sit back and enjoy the novel, and root for the white protagonists, and not challenge its attitudes about race? It’s just hard to know. I don’t know what to make of the O’Haras, beyond that they are so likable on the page that I feel like I’d enjoy knowing them in real life, and that in real life I think I might have been morally justified in killing them if there were no other means of freeing the human beings they had enslaved. And getting my brain around that juxtaposition of images is going to take some work.
The O’Hara we are most concerned with, of course, is Scarlett, who by now is widowed, having married in haste to avoid embarrassment (and inflict punishment, which seems to be Scarlett’s primary motive for almost everything she does to or with men). Scarlett is almost thoroughly unlikable and almost thoroughly alive—very engaging to read about, as the emotions swirl and Scarlett wreaks her havoc, and I’m freed of needing to root for her at any moment. The only thing holding me back from really enjoying her comeuppances is that Mitchell so obviously dislikes her too, and enjoys punishing her. That kind of condescension angered me when it was Tarkington looking down on the title character in Alice Adams, but Scarlett’s such a nasty piece of work sometimes that I feel this uneasy kinship with Mitchell about wanting to see Scarlett disappointed. It’s a weird feeling. How on earth Mitchell’s going to sustain that strained relationship to her main character for another 800+ pages is really beyond my ability to guess, although it’s certainly intriguing for me as a reader, on some level.
The inverse is more or less true of Melanie Hamilton, the most Mary Sue-ish character I’ve yet run into in my Pulitzer jaunt, that I can recall. Were I to attend a barbecue at Twelve Oaks, of course I would have been sitting with Ashley Wilkes and Melanie, discussing Thackeray and Dickens, rather than hanging around passing dainties to Scarlett—she is not the kind of person I’d enjoy talking to, and they are (though they’d have found me a third wheel, eh?). But I feel a bit odd rooting for a character who is so obviously just the author’s idealized version of herself, the saint-martyr who thinks no ill of anyone, the book-lover whose thoughts and conversations are ever so much more erudite than those of someone as crass and blunt as Miss Scarlett. Of course Melanie’s likable—she’s not real, not in the vivid and dangerous way that Scarlett is. Does it make any sense to say that I’d rather sit with Melanie at the party, but I’d rather read about Scarlett at the party?
A couple of quick thoughts to finish—first of all, the start of the war was handled all right by Mitchell, who does at least get some nice anti-war speeches into the mouths of characters it’s obvious the others should have been listening to. But she glosses past all the reasons for the war, which is a bit shameful considering the way she’s already treating black people as though they really kind of enjoy being slaves, and have it pretty good. The young men in 1861 didn’t shout “states’ rights” as much as they shouted that no Yankee was going to tell any Southern man what he could do with his slaves. But the young men in this novel stick pretty much exclusively to the former. Secondly, I am fascinated by the fact (ignored in the movie, unless my memory is almost totally shot) that Scarlett and her family are observant Catholics. There’s a history of anti-Catholicism in America, especially in the mid-19th Century, and certainly no less in the South than anywhere else. A much better, more perceptive writer would do something with that—the rich belle who is in some ways a minority herself in a society obsessed with minorities—but I just don’t think Mitchell has it in her. She tells a good romance plot, I’ll give her that, and her characters sparkle pretty well. But there’s precious little to think about under the surface, as far as I can see. If Part Two, Scarlett’s move to Atlanta during the war, surprises me, I’ll have no trouble admitting it, but I have the sneaking suspicion that I already know what I’m in for.